Journalist and Author John Nichols

The journalist and author discusses his latest book Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People In America.

John Nichols is the national affairs writer for The Nation magazine and a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times. He is also the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, and a cofounder of the media-reform group Free Press. A frequent commentator on American politics and media, he has appeared often on MSNBC, NPR, BBC and regularly lectures at major universities on presidential administrations and executive power. The author of ten books and has earned numerous awards for his investigative reports, including groundbreaking examinations (in collaboration with the Center for Media and Democracy) of the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

His latest book is Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People In America.

TRANSCRIPT

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Tavis: John Nichols is national affairs correspondent and politics writer for The Nation magazine. He joins us to discuss today’s announcement [laugh] to end DACA, The Nation’s cover story, and his new book, “Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America”. Can I just tell you, I’m glad I got that title out without messing it up?

John Nichols: There have been a few people struggle with it. When you’re trying to create a new word and you’re trying to combine a little biblical principle with a little politics, it’s sometimes a rough issue.

Tavis: I said it once. I ain’t gonna try to say it again [laugh]. I got that one time. No laughing matter here. How surreal was it? I even saw that President Obama who hasn’t said much since he left the White House went on his Facebook page today to sound off on this move.

Nichols: He promised that he would.

Tavis: Yeah, he kept his word. So President Obama sounded off today on this announcement by the White House, by Mr. Trump, that he’s rescinding the DACA provisions. What do you make of this?

Nichols: I think it’s what Jeff Sessions and a few of these people wanted to do long ago, long before Trump even became a presidential candidate. They attached themselves to Trump early on because they saw him as a vehicle to do this. It is tragic. It is irresponsible.

Jeff Sessions in his press conference was dishonest. He suggested that these remarkable young people are taking jobs from American workers when in fact immigration is a net boom to our economy. It’s good for us. And he said a lot of other things that were incredibly irresponsible and wrong-headed.

But I’m not surprised. Because after Jeff Sessions’ nefarious tenure as a U.S. Attorney in Alabama, his actions as regards civil rights and voting rights down there, when he was turned down for a federal judgeship, he remade himself politically. Came back into politics, ultimately became a U.S. Senator and changed his game just a little to be in this militant anti-immigration, anti-immigrant rights player.

So when he was up there today, I think — I don’t want to get in his head. I don’t try to do that — but I would suggest to you that he was realizing an ark that he got on a long time ago and we should not lose sight of that. He will not let go of this. He will be very hardcore on it.

There will continue to be a struggle over this issue and what’s encouraging is that I’m hearing Republicans in Congress, people who, unlike Jeff Sessions, are looking a little bit to the future, who are saying that there may be some resistance there. I certainly hope so, because, boy, this is so divisive.

Tavis: What’s ironic to me about this, John — I’m sure it’s not lost on you either — is that a few days ago these guys were at each other’s throats. I mean, Sessions, of course, couldn’t say what he wanted to say publicly the way that Trump sort of dissed him publicly and on his Tweets, etc., but here they are now again apparently in lockstep on this issue.

Nichols: Well, this is what’s troubling. One of the things to understand, and I write a lot about this in the book, because it’s one of the lost realities of the Trump administration. There are power centers within this administration and Jeff Sessions is a power center.

Even though the president was upset with him about some of the Russia stuff, the reality is that Jeff Sessions comes with a constituency built up over many decades and that constituency advocates for an incredibly intolerant view not just on immigration, but on a host of issues.

And I’ll remind you also that, you know, for all the talk about divisions between Sessions and Trump, Sessions’ long-time aide, Stephen Miller, is still in the White House and, by all accounts, still very central to a lot of these discussions.

Tavis: I love how you open the book. First of all, I love the dedication to your mom and to her friends. You have to read the dedication. It’s worth the price of the book, just this dedication.

Nichols: Thank you [laugh].

Tavis: I love that. But then I love the next part of the book where you actually give a user’s guide for how to actually use a book. Because the first question I had, okay, so John’s gonna tell us who these people are that are really running things behind the scenes, but how do we use this book? What do we do with this?

Nichols: Well, I mean, I will recognize that some of your viewers may like President Trump quite a bit. I’ve been a critic of him for a long time and I have always argued that this president came to this position without a lot of political experience. He had entertainment experience and the way our politics is evolving, that was useful. But he didn’t know much about governance…

Tavis: That’s charitable when you say “without a lot”. He had none [laugh].

Nichols: Right. And he didn’t know the players, right? So here he is trying to put together an administration and it became very clear to me very early on that he gave jobs to people who were the loudest yellers in the room.

It wasn’t the people who had the deepest experience or the insights or the nuance. So first and foremost, I think it’s really important for people to understand why these people are where they are. They’re not there because they’re the best at it.

Tavis: Got it.

Nichols: They’re there because they yelled loudest, because they had the most money behind them, they had the most connections with the hard right. Real conservatives will tell you this is the most right wing administration in history. It isn’t just a Trump administration. It goes ideologically. So I want people to understand that.

But I also want to understand those who seek to resist this administration, those who object. That to simply obsess about Donald Trump, about his latest Tweet, about his horrible press conferences, whatever else upsets you about Donald Trump, is insufficient.

It is insufficient because we now have a cabinet system of governments, nothing like what Washington or the founders imagined. They had tiny cabinets. This is large. These are multibillion dollar agencies with thousands of staffers and huge internal power to give executive orders, to change rules.

Thus, my argument for how to use this book is to learn how these people are, learn who objects to them, who’s following them. And if you’ve got a passion on issues of war and peace, or the environment, or civil rights, or housing, or whatever other issue, expand your focus beyond Donald Trump to the people he has empowered often to act in our name, but without our informed consent.

Tavis: Let me put you on the spot here. We know the names of some of these field generals that we should keep our eye on because we see them every day. We see Jeff Sessions every day. We see Mr. Tillotson at State every day. So some of these — we see Mattis every day. Some of these guys, we see every day. Give me a couple of people who we don’t necessarily see every day, but they’re pulling some serious strings.

Nichols: Oh, I’ll start off with one that’s central to what’s been happening of late. Elaine Chao, she’s the wife of Mitch McConnell. She’s been a member of previous administrations. Her record at the Department of Labor back during the Bush years was a terrible record. It faced many objections, much criticism, not just from unions, but from people who analyze how you run a government agency.

But she’s back. Now she’s running Transportation. We don’t pay a lot of attention to the Department of Transportation. We tend to think of it as just, you know, make sure the planes go and buses go. That is such a powerful agency as regards our safety, as regards spending of money. Donald Trump is talking about a trillion dollar infrastructure program.

Very real possibility that a lot of that will be run through the Department of Transportation, but not in the way that a Franklin Roosevelt did. More with privatization, a lot of corporations coming out with more money than they’ve ever had.

You really need to look at her and you need to look at her for one other reason too. When Donald Trump had that horrible press conference on Charlottesville…

Tavis: She was standing there.

Nichols: Right behind.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

Nichols: Do you know why she was standing there? Because that press conference wasn’t supposed to be about Charlottesville. It was supposed to be about…

Tavis: Infrastructure.

Nichols: Infrastructure.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nichols: And they were announcing they were overturning an order by Barack Obama called The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. That standard…

Tavis: As Harvey’s on the way.

Nichols: Well, a little bit before. They didn’t quite see the weather. I don’t think they would have done it if they’d known what was coming. But that standard said because we’re seeing such bigger storms, bigger storm surges, more flooding, we think it’s related to climate change. And we think that we’re going to have more of this in the future.

We need to make sure that when we spend money on infrastructure to build a bridge, to build a road, to build a hospital, whatever we’re putting the money into, that it be climate resilient, that it be ready for the next kinds of storms that are coming.

Just days before Harvey, they overturned that rule. Now as we rebuild after Harvey — and it will be a massive rebuilding — one of the critical rules to make sure that if the next storm comes what we build will stand has been taken off the books. Why was it taken off the books? Not because good fiscal conservatives wanted it off the books. This was crony capitalism.

Tavis: How much damage can they do assuming they have — best case scenario, four years, worst case scenario, eight years — how much damage can they really do?

Nichols: They can transform America, and that’s why I came up with the word “Trumpocalypse”. We all understand the biblical concept of the apocalypse and some people are afraid of that with Donald Trump. They fear him, as they say, having his finger on the button. And, of course, I don’t detract from that concern. I wrote a lot about the generals and the military and these issues in here.

But my concept of a Trumpocalypse is that, if you take the worst of Donald Trump, the things that most unsettle us, this religious intolerance, this reopening of old wounds, this comfort level with sort of an amorphous view toward the battle between racists and those who oppose racism, all of these things, and what if that became America? Well, it won’t be Donald Trump that does that.

If we have this transition, this transformation, it will be the people he has empowered, the people he has put in cabinet positions and advisory positions and also the people outside the administration who he gives voice to and gives connection to. That transformation could reverse decades, our entire lifetimes. It could reverse the progress that we’ve made. And as a country, we can’t afford that.

Tavis: My time is running out here, but I just read a piece. Your colleague at The Nation, Joan Walsh, wrote a piece and I’m going to mess the title up. Her piece basically was “Why Pence is Worse Than Trump”. If I hear you correctly, for those who believe that Pence is worse than Trump, it sounds like you don’t really need Mike Pence if these people are doing what you say they’re doing.

Nichols: That’s exactly right! I mean, with all due respect — I write about Pence in here. I write about Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. I wrote about all these players — but with all due respect, Donald Trump has empowered people at agencies and in places we don’t even pay attention to like overseeing banking, overseeing environmental protection, overseeing all sorts of major, major aspects of our lives.

And as long as they are there, as long as they’re doing their bidding, even if at the end of the day Donald Trump were to take a month off and just lie in bed and not even Tweet, right? Not do anything. just take the month off, awful things would be happening. And a deconstruction of a regulatory state and really of America as we want it to be would continue because of these people who, frankly, in much of the media are rarely even covered.

Tavis: Sleep on that tonight [laugh]. “Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America” written by The Nation’s John Nichols. I said it twice and I got it out the second time too.

Nichols: I’m very impressed with you, sir.

Tavis: I will not go for a third time [laugh]. John, good to have you on.

Nichols: Honored.

Tavis: My pleasure. Up next, former FEMA director, Michael Brown. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 6, 2017 at 1:26 pm